Sunday in the Park with Picts

On a normal, everyday basis, I am pretty used to living in America now.  There are times, however, when I almost pinch myself and think to myself how weird it is that I live here.  Sunday was just such a day.  The littlest Pict – as part of his birthday festivities – requested a trip to New York City.  So we did.  And that felt a bit weird and also pretty cool.

Young kids travel free on the New Jersey transit on weekends so – with three of our kids qualifying – we determined that we could make a trip to NYC an affordable day trip.  We crossed state lines by car and hopped on the train.  It was the first time my kids had ever been on a double-decker train, a concept which they thought was excitingly awesome.  We travelled there on the top tier and came back on the bottom one so that they could experience both decks.  They thought it was cool to be eye level with people’s feet when on the bottom deck.  In really no time at all we were at Penn Station and right in the midst of midtown Manhattan.

The train tickets were our expense for the day so we were all about free fun.  We strolled up through the smack-bang-wallop sights and sounds of Times Square and continued on a few blocks until we reached Central Park, the focus of our trip.  Yes indeed: we essentially travelled all of the way to New York in order to play in a park.  Also kind of weird and kind of cool.

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We were no sooner in Central Park – which was absolutely thronging with people out enjoying the Sunday sunshine – than my four kids all scarpered off to climb on rocks.  They scrambled up and down the rocks like a herd of little mountain goats.  I have acrophobia so watching their antics gives me the heebie-jeebies but I don’t want to turn my kids into little quaking jellies like me so I try to let them just get on with it.  Of course, all four of my kids have broken teeth through face planting before so perhaps my hands-off policy is not the best.

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Our 9 year old has the most powerful imagination of the bunch and he is also the most persuasive so he engineered a game they could all play on the rocks.  The game was very complex, too complex for me to comprehend, but it definitely involved battling mountain orcs.  Occasionally I would spot another child or two wander towards my kids, observing them, perhaps tempted to join the fray, but my kids are kind of a pack and completely wrapped up in their game there was not a chance anyone else was going to get absorbed into their play.  That’s the thing about a gang of four brothers who are also best buddies: they have each other so they can tend towards exclusivity.  So they ran around on the rocks for a couple of hours, being orcs, killing orcs, and ever so often Mr Pict and I would herd them a few yards further into the park so that we could make some sort of progress.  They would then career around and caper on some other rocks for a good while.

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Eventually they decided they were up for a stroll.  They were quite taken with the pond near the Hallett Nature Sanctuary so we idled there for a while before doubling back towards the Dairy so we could gulp cold water from the drinking fountain there and refill our water bottles.  The boys then decided they wanted to see some statues so we wandered along Literary Walk where we saw Shakespeare, Walter Scott and Robert Burns.  We the continued along the Mall to Bethesda Terrace because I wanted to see the Bethesda Fountain actually operating.  I had seen it on my trip to New York a couple of months ago but that was in very different weather conditions.  The bronze angel dates from the early 1870s and symbolises purity, hence the lily in her hand.  Below her feet are four cherubs who apparently represent purity, health, temperance and peace.

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We then cut across to the east and wended our way past the model boat pond, which was full of model yachts competing with a few ducks, and then to the Alice in Wonderland Statue.  I had had a notion to take the boys on a highlights tour of Central Park statues but they had spent so long enjoying simply running around on the rocks and across the grass that my plan was abandoned as soon as it was hatched.  They did, however, want to see the Alice statue.  It was, as always, covered in children.  I managed to get an almost child-free photo of it last time I was in Central Park but there was no chance of that this time.  The photographer in me might find that a little dismaying but the parent in me is much stronger and enjoyed seeing all of the kids – not just my own – enjoying the sculpture and becoming part of the Mad Hatter’s tea party.  Half a century of kids clambering all over the statue has given it a glowing patina.  My kids particularly enjoyed exploring beneath the mushrooms, finding all the smaller sculpted details of bugs and beasties, and also enjoying the shade it provided.

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We then popped out onto 5th Avenue with its many museums behind us and its miles of very expensive shops in front of us.  We had not even reached the southside of Central Park before the kids started to flag so they had an ice cream to fortify themselves for the many more steps to come.  We did, however, decide to add another free item to our day’s itinerary not least because it offered us some shade and air conditioning, and that was a trip into FAO Schwarz.

FAO Schwarz is the oldest toy store in America, having been founded in 1862, but sadly it is going to be closing its doors this summer.  I was eager to get the kids into this iconic shop before it ceased to be in that location and perhaps even ceased to be permanently.  The store front – part of the General Motors Building – is actually quite unassuming but is Tardis-like once inside.  I was instantly wowed by the chill blast of the air conditioning but my children were wowed, their eyes like saucers and their jaws agape, by a massive display of cuddly toys.  It was like a zoological park of plush animals.  Some of these were massive and carried massive price tags to match.  Our 8 year old was smitten with unicorns and pegasuses the size of Shetland ponies but a lifetime of pocket money was not going to get him one.  Knowing there was no way we were going to cover the whole store, the boys were asked to determine which areas and displays they wanted to see.  Inevitably, therefore, the sections we visited were for superhero action figures, Minions, video games and Lego.  The kids had a great time looking at all the toys, mentally creating lists for Santa.

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Then it was time to leave the soothing cool of the toy store and go back out onto the busy, baking streets.  Somehow the walk back to Penn Station felt so much longer and further than the walk to Central Park had been that morning.  The train was surprisingly busy for a Sunday, alarmingly so since we had to walk the length of several carriages to find one that had space.  The kids’ feet and legs were pegging out at the mere thought of there being standing room only all the way back to our destination station.  Thankfully, at the penultimate carriage, we found some spaces on the bottom deck.  We sank into the chairs, exhausted, sticky from humidity and park dust, but very glad that our very first day trip to New York City had been a grand success and one I think we shall repeat.

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Three have Fun in Manhattan – Day 3 – Statue of Liberty

After breakfasting at the Moonstruck Diner again, we caught the downtown tour bus and hopped off at Battery Park.  Our mission for the day was to visit the Statue of Liberty.  Tickets to get inside and ascend the Statue sell out in advance but we didn’t mind as we only wanted to visit the island anyway.  I personally don’t think I will ever climb that statue as I have claustrophobia and a crippling fear of heights.  The queue for the ticket line moved quickly but the queue to get through the security checks moved like molasses.  I am not against security screening at all.  I completely understand the need for it.  However, there has to be a more efficient system for processing people.  For instance, initially we were in an orderly queue but then the fence opened up wider and we were all directed to fill every nook and cranny of the space which meant any order there had been was completely lost.  It’s the type of anti-queuing that makes we British people twitchy.  That blob of people then had to narrow down to get up a set of steps and through a door which created a bottleneck.  That bottleneck was what slowed everything up because once inside it took really no time at all to go through the security check, not least because we had all had ample time to strip off belts and organise our possessions so that we didn’t bleep.

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Once on board the boat – which can transport a heck of a lot of people – we scurried up to the top deck to get a good view of Governors Island, the NYC skyline, Ellis Island and, of course, the Statue of Liberty.  It was very cold indeed out on the water and I was dressed like a polar gnome for the third day in a row but the views made it worthwhile.  It took no time at all to reach the island and make land fall.  I had seen the Statue of Liberty before but en route to Ellis Island, back in August 2001, so this was actually my first time on Liberty Island too.  After the obligatory trip to the restrooms, we went for a stroll around the statue.

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As impressive as Lady Liberty is from a distance, she is even more striking at close quarters.  I am curious as to what the statue would have looked like when the copper was new and shiny but the patination of the verdigris is effective in emphasising the contours of the figure and the folds of the cloth, the weight in the stance, the facial expression and the contrast with the brightness of the flame element.  It was interesting to see her from different angles, really appreciate the dimension of the sculpture, understand the way the pose works to support the symbolism.  I must have snapped a hundred photos of the statue as we circled around it.

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Back on the boat, it was a hop, skip and a jump to get to Ellis Island.  We were tempted to get off and explore but knew our timings were tight so decided that we would all three return to New York some time and visit both Ellis Island and the 9/11 Museum.  Although I have been to Ellis Island before, my kids have not yet been and I am eager to take them as they are the descendants of immigrants to America as well as being immigrants themselves.  As with our trip to Plimoth Plantation, I do love it when family, social and national history combine and drill some learning into my kids.  So I will be back some time with the family in tow.  The 9/11 Museum, however, will have to wait until the kids are older.  I digress.  We resisted temptation and landed back at Battery Park.

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There, we caught the tour bus which unfortunately completed its downtown circuit by heading up the west shore of Manhattan.  Unfortunate because the blue skies and sunshine of the day had led to the upper deck being opened up; unfortunate because we decided to go and sit on the top deck to get the best views, shored up by our false belief that it was warmer than it was; and unfortunate because the wind sweeping across the Hudson was freezing.  We did our best to scrunch up against the cold, burrowing into our coats, hats and scarves, but our fingers went numb and our skulls felt as if they were vibrating in the chill wind.  And the traffic was slow, painfully slow, so we dragged past the meatpacking district, Chelsea, the piers, before turning inland a bit in the region of Hell’s Kitchen where we then went from a crawl to a standstill as we encountered gridlock.  The slow pace of the traffic seemed to provoke lawlessness too as cars continued to creep out against a red light simply because the vehicles who had a green light were moving so slowly that they could risk it.  It was like bandit country in the middle of the city.  Finally the bus rocked forward far enough to escape the traffic stalemate and we got back to the theatre district.  Had we been permitted to disembark, we would most certainly have been quicker walking the last leg of the journey.

We badly needed to thaw out and eat warm food.  A and M wanted to experience a New York slice so we went off in search of some street pizza.  There were hot dogs and pretzels galore but trying to find a hole in the wall selling pizza proved to be more difficult than we envisaged.  Finally we found a little place just off Broadway and better still it had a place to sit down and better still it had more than 20 tables which meant it had to have a restroom.  It is all about toilets, you see.  The pizza could have stood to be hotter – especially since we were so very cold – but it was really tasty and had a lovely crisp base.  I chose a slice of veggie pizza and a slice with fresh tomatoes and mozzarella on it, a warm version of a caprese pizza.  I devoured both.  A great last supper for our trip together.

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Just like that, our trip together was over.  A and M had to catch their bus back to the airport and I had to catch the train to get back home.  I actually lucked out and entered Penn Station and reached the NJ Transit area just as my train was about to head off so I had no malingering to endure.  Our three days as a trio went very quickly and we barely scratched the surface of what Manhattan has to offer.

In terms of tourism, the highlight of this trip to New York City was certainly seeing the Statue of Liberty.  However, for me the highlight was getting to spend quality time with my good friends.  Considering we used to see each other daily and meet up at least once a week, I cannot claim it was just like old times but – after 18 months apart – it was great to know we could just pick up where we left off with our friendship and have a whale of a time together.   “When shall we three meet again?”  We were already discussing where we might meet up next.  Hopefully with warmer temperatures.

Three have Fun in Manhattan – Day 2 – Central Park and Brooklyn by Night

Waking early, we strolled across the street and popped into the Moonstruck Diner for breakfast.  The whole place had the feel of a retro diner but with modern decorative flourishes such as tables covered in petrol iridescent mosaic tiles.  The service was great, the menu was good and the prices were pretty fair by Manhattan standards.  I had a bowl of oatmeal with fresh fruit which was good fuel for the day which was useful because it was an absolutely freezing cold day, complete with flurries of snow and wind that whipped and chapped our skin and chilled us to our marrows.

We walked up through Times Square, already starting to bustle even that early in the morning.  We popped into the M&M store partly to show M and A the bizarreness of a store dedicated to just one single type of candy but also partly for some respite from the outdoor temperatures.  Three floors of nothing but M&M merchandise and a whole wall covered in tubes of different coloured chocolate sweeties, the shop is completely and utterly bonkers but impressively so.

Thawed out, we emerged back onto the streets and headed up into Central Park because you absolutely cannot visit New York City without a visit to Central Park.  We walked up through the centre of the park as far as Bethesda Terrace.  Unfortunately the fountain was not running, presumably because of the low temperatures but the angel was still appealing.  We then cut east past lots of sculptures.  We stopped to study the charming Alice in Wonderland statue just in time because a massive group of teenagers on a school trip then clambered all over it.  Then we popped out onto the Museum Mile section of Fifth Avenue.  Snow was falling by this point and it felt like we had to walk much further than a mile to reach our eventual destination: the Museum of the City of New York.

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Tickets for the Museum had been part of the package that came with our bus tour tickets.  Given the temperatures, we would otherwise have chosen to visit a much closer museum.  We were welcomed by a lovely lady who explained what the current exhibitions were in enthusiastic detail when all we desperately wanted to know were where the restrooms were.  Having availed ourselves of the facilities, we then sought out a place to rest our weary legs and view a permanent exhibition, a short film named Timescapes.  Narrated by Stanley Tucci, it told the story of the city from pre-European settlement through to the present day.  A particularly successful element of the film was the use of maps to illustrate the expansion of the city and its development.  Another memorable element was the juxtaposition, across the three screens, of photos showing the lives of wealthy residents contrasted with those of the poorest residents.  Both of those aspects of the film drove the message of New York being a city of contrasts and of constant change.

The other exhibit we spent time in was a section devoted to the city’s history of social activism: abolitionists, suffragettes, gay rights activists, environmentalists, social justice campaigners, the Civil Rights movement , cycle safety and bang up to date with the controversy over the siting of the Park51 Islamic community centre.   All these examples of activism were represented in the exhibition space and illustrated with various artifacts, photographs, film footage and audio excerpts.  The slave irons were poignant but the section that I found most evocative was the revolving gallery of photographs by Jacob Riis depicting the city’s slums, impoverished residents and criminals.  The artifact I enjoyed most, however, was a plastic doll – a bit like Barbie’s boyfriend Ken – who was named “Gay Bob” and whose box read “Come out of the closet with Gay Bob”.  I thought the disarming wit of that item was fantastic and demonstrated a another approach to activism, differing from all the debating, arguing and rage.

The wind was blasting and the snow was whirling when we stepped back out onto Fifth Avenue so we were glad to be able to catch the tour bus to take us back down to Times Square.  The journey on the bus did nothing to warm us up but our plan was to stay out of the cold as much as possible by popping in and out of shops.  There were various items that M and A wanted to purchase so that was our mission for the afternoon.  Our first pit stop – after a quick bite to eat in a cafe – was Macy’s.  Macy’s bills itself as the world’s largest department store and it is certainly a bit of a warren inside, a maze of escalators and elevators and half floors.  The store was absolutely thronging too.  In addition to people who were there to shop, of which there were masses, there were also people who were visiting in order to apparently see all of the flowers that were on display.  Apparently Macy’s hold an annual floral exhibition and that event had apparently attracted a whole horde of people.  They were taking photos of flowers, standing around discussing botanical species and posing with the floral displays to have their photos taken.  Navigating the heaving crowds certainly helped warm us up.  I was determined to show A and M the wooden escalators in the store.  Most of the escalators have the original wooden sides but with modern metal steps but I really wanted them to see the flight of escalators that still have wooden treads.  That was my nerdy mission.  I was over the moon when I finally found them.  I suspect A and M were underwhelmed.  We wandered in and out of a few more stores so that my friends could buy all of the things they wanted to get and buy souvenirs to take back to Scotland and then it was time to wander back up into the theatre district to catch the bus for the night tour.

The night tour was the only bus ride we had with a female guide.  It would have been quite useful to have encountered her earlier in the trip as she was obsessed with toilets and was able to tell us which were the cleanest ladies’ loos in the midtown area.  As a female traveller, that type of intel is golden.  The three of us plus a lady from Florida elected to sit right at the back of the upper deck.  This was because the rear section of the perspex roof had been removed and we could get a better view and better photographs.  Any warmth we had accumulated from our jaunts in and out of shops immediately dissipated with the breeze whipping in through the back of the bus.  We also had to inhale exhaust fumes ever so often.  We all refused to budge, however, even though the seats were also too high for us which meant we all shuttled forwards any time the bus came to a jolting stop, which it did frequently.  We thought unimpaired views and better photographs made it worthwhile.  The tour took us past all the usual suspect sites but it also took us over the Manhattan Bridge onto Brooklyn – affording us a decent view of the Brooklyn Bridge – and then along the side of the East River so that we could see another view of downtown Manhattan before taking us back over the river to complete the circuit.

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Temperatures had fallen to subzero (centigrade) while we were on our bus tour so we decided to just scurry back to home base which we did as quickly as possible but via a wine shop.  We chilled out in the living room of my hotel room, drinking wine, chatting and giggling until the wee small hours of Sunday morning because this trip was about reuniting with friends as well as exploring the city and that was our last evening together.

Three have Fun in Manhattan – Day 1 – Downtown

There are many ways in which one can measure or assess friendships.  One measure might be friends who are willing to cross an ocean just to spend a few days with you.  Two of my closest friends from Scotland did just that.  How awesome is that?  I choose not to write about how much I miss my family and friends.  For a start, it is stating the obvious and there is not much to write about beyond that obvious statement.  It is also too vulnerable a set of emotions to share in an open forum.  Of course, the internet and social media make it far easier to keep in touch these days and that enables me to feel connected to the everyday lives of my family and friends, which certainly helps take the edge off things.  However, nothing compares to actually spending some quality time together.  Needless to say, therefore, I had been looking forward to this reunion for months.

My friends, A and M, flew in on the Thursday evening and I took the train up to New York City on Friday morning.  That leg of the trip actually represented my first ever solo travel within North America, as I have always travelled with either Mr Pict or the Pictlings before.  So that was a wee milestone.  My friends actually came to Penn Station to meet me which was a complete surprise, not least because they were right under my nose before I noticed they were there in front of me.  The three of us then walked to our hotel so that I could check in.  We were staying at the Jolly Madison Tower Hotel which is situated on 38th and Madison.  At check in, I was given an upgrade for no good reason which meant I ended up with a suite: a spacious bedroom, a large living room and a really nice bathroom.  I even got complementary personal care items and bottles of water.  A and M were outraged by the lack of parity.  Righteous indignation is one of the qualities we all share and which no doubt helps bond us.  My fourteenth floor suite had a view onto a brick wall, an aesthetically pleasing red brick wall but still not much of a view.  However, that wall did protect me from the potential racket of NYC streets.  Furthermore, my living room area proved to be a good spot for hanging out and chatting in the evenings. Having dumped my bags, we wasted no time at all in heading back out onto the streets of Manhattan.

A and M had already visited Times Square, Grand Central Terminal and the Empire State Building so we thought it might be a good idea to head out of midtown and check out downtown.  I suggested that we take the Staten Island Ferry so as to get a different perspective on the New York City skyline so that became our plan.  We were on Broadway when we conferred and decided it might be a worthwhile investment to buy ticket passes for a tour bus company to help us get around while still seeing the sites.  We went with Go New York tours.  They ran several circuits around Manhattan which offered good area coverage and each tour came with an on board tour guide.  Of the four guides we experienced, only one chap was duff.  The other three were all very good: knowledgeable, enthusiastic, full of humour and engaging.  In fact, the only down side to the whole experience was that they were not explicit – even when asked directly – about the final schedule times for some of the circuits – more of which later.

Having passed the Wall Street bull – and seen people having their photos taken beside it at both ends – we hopped off the bus at the Battery.  We were all very peckish indeed by that point so we looked around for something to eat.  Finding value for money munchies in Manhattan was to be a recurring theme of our trip.  It was a potent reminder of why I had made packed lunches for us when Mr Pict and I had visited with the kids in February.  We finally opted for a Deli opposite Bowling Green where the prices were actually not too bad considering I ate a very filling and very tasty wrap.  Replete, we headed across the street to the Whitehall Terminal to catch the Staten Island Ferry.  Designed, of course, to shuttle commuters back and forth, the ferry is also a great resource for tourists and is entirely free.  How is that for value for money?  We had wanted to get out on the open decks but they remained roped off plus it was also very cold indeed.  We, therefore, managed to get a spot by a window so that we could catch the views of Battery Park and the downtown skyline along with the Statue of Liberty.  Then we disembarked, walked through the waiting room and got straight back on the return ferry.

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We wandered up Greenwich Street and came to the National 9/11 Memorial.  As busy as the area was, the quiet was telling.  Apart from one family who were posing for smiley-faced photos in front of the FDNY Memorial – an evocative brass wall sculpture – everyone in the area was appropriately sombre and reverential.  The photos of the 343 firefighters who perished that day had me choked.  We then moved over to look at the reflecting pools.  They are beautiful and peaceful, a tasteful and thoughtful memorial to the almost three thousand people killed that day.  We stood for some time just watching the water and thinking.  This was my first time seeing the completed One World Trade Center and I have to say that it is a very striking building.  I think it works as a symbol of America’s resilience.

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Dusk was settling at that point so we headed back over to Broadway to catch our tour bus back to midtown.  Except we couldn’t.  Because the bus had stopped running that circuit.  It took us almost half an hour to figure that out, however, so we stood there, the three of us, waiting for a bus that would never come as if we were in some absurdist play.  We were dangerously close to freezing into a tourist attraction when we figured out our problem.  Feeling stupid and disgruntled, we started hoofing it back up Broadway.  At approximately a block per minute, we were making good time but it was still a pretty long walk.   We ticked off neighbourhoods as we went to make us feel like we were accomplishing something.  Crossing Houston from SoHo into NoHo felt like an actual achievement and we were over the moon when we reached Union Square, by which time it was dark.  We were flagging and hungry by the time we were wandering along Park Avenue so we were glad to spy an empty table in an Irish pub (of which there are many in midtown).

Desperation does not make for good decisions.  The service ranged from indifferent to surly and the drinks were pricey.  My Buffalo chicken wrap with side salad was good (though I was admittedly prepared to eat a rotten rhino by that point) but M and A’s nachos were not up to scratch.  We also learned that we are too old to tolerate the skull thumping volume of music in pubs.  We were sitting at close quarters to one another but were pretty much reliant on lip reading and gesticulation in order to communicate.  We gobbled, gulped, paid the bill and departed.  We then repaired to our hotel where we flopped in the bar.  This was a lovely, cosy, comfy space.  It was also quiet.  This was a welcome contrast to the Irish bar but maybe a little too quiet.  It is a bit intense to be the only three customers for a barman who was clearly bored rigid.  The drinks were no more expensive than they had been in the pub.  We decided to have cocktails and A and I had a Manhattan each since that seemed the most appropriate drink for the location.  That was our night cap.  We shambled off to our rooms to get enough sleep to recharge for day 2.